Monday, August 3, 2015

Movie - Around the Bend

Around the Bend (2004) - Henry Lair (Michael Caine) wants to bring his scattered family back together.  His plan involves a trip in a VW mini-bus with his estranged son (Christopher Walken), bitter grandson (Josh Lucas) and great-grandson (Jonah Bobo).  The trip will take them back to a pivotal, legendary moment in family history and reveal some buried answers along the way.

This is a kind of a buddy movie, a kind of a road movie, a kind of a "quest" movie.  It's also a kind of a mess.  There's a kind of surreal feel to all the action, like it's not quite real.  That can work when it's an integral part of the concept.  I don't get the feeling that it is here.  Consequently it only kind of works.

All of this loosely based on director Jordan Roberts VI relationship with his indie film director/lunatic/criminal father Robert Stone Jordan.  The movie may have gotten lost in those personal issues.

The audience liked this more than the critics but not enough to put much money down for tickets.

Why I Liked It - Watching really good actors having fun with interesting roles that aren't like everything else out there is always fun.  Watching Caine and Walken fence through their characters familiar issues is watching great artists weave their magic.

Why You Will Like It - The interplay among the different generations of men in this family will suck you right in.  Caine and Walken and young master Bobo create an intimate, intricate web of relationships that are worth the price of admission.

Rating - R for language

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Books - A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Fire and Ice - series) by George R.R. Martin - (1996-?) The sweeping story of the lands of Westeros where seasons last for years.  Summer is ending, Winter is coming and the world of the Seven Kingdoms must face more than just the beginning a long hard winter.  The king's crown is in play with many reaching for the Iron Throne.  The series begins following nine story lines and expands with each of the succeeding novels to more than thirty.

There's simply no short way of describing the plot of this series.  In the first place, it isn't finished yet.  There are two more books to come in the next couple (?) years.  I include the question mark because the author works at his own pace which can be eccentric compared to standard publishing schedules.

There is a lot to recommend this series.  At the same time you should know going in that there's plenty of violence and sex.  Rape is not only a common topic of discussion among the characters, it takes place regularly during the story.  At the same time there are strong women (one of the most ruthless characters is a woman) in the story. The other thing to note is that the vast majority of these characters are simply awful people.  I'm talking "You'll think Darth Vader and the Nazis might have just been misunderstood" kind of awful  It may be a challenging balance for some people and you ought to be aware of that before you begin.

I have to admit that I am seriously divided on these books.   Martin has created a world that runs on people being horrible.  There is a level of misogny in a lot of fantasy novels but this falls at the high end of the spectrum.  I have an ongoing concern about the "entertainment" value of so much violence in our society.  It seems to be clearly increasing during my lifetime and I worry about what that says about our culture.  I hit the point of the "Red Wedding" in the third book and very nearly walked away from the entire series.  I find no "entertainment" in vile people doing vile things.  I'm not sure if I'm going to resume reading or not.

Why I Liked It - Brilliant story telling and excellent writing.  I was seriously torn as I read the first book because so many of the characters were so repellent.   The question was - did I really want to invite people like this into my life for seven long novels?  What won me over was the quality of Martin's writing.  He creates a vile clan of folks in the Lannisters but at the same time creates a member of that family in Tyrion that hard not to like.  You shouldn't ever trust him but it's hard not to root for the Imp.  The story telling puts this into the "I don't want to put the book down" category.  I roared through the 700+ pages of the second novel, "A Clash of Kings" in less than a week.

Why You Will Like It - The story telling, the characters, the sweeping breadth of the story and the amazing detail of it all.  Martin creates a unique and special fantasy world without ever falling into the stale traps I so often see.  Overly complex stories, ridiculously arcane names or use of created languages to the point that you need a translator to follow along are deadfalls that Martin sidesteps adroitly.

Rating - **** Recommended (With Reservations)

Monday, July 27, 2015

Movie - Hot Fuzz

Hot Fuzz (2007) - The ultimate arresting machine of a London police officer (Simon Pegg) gets transferred against his will to a tiny English village.  There, with his bumbling partner(Nick Frost), they discover a giant criminal conspiracy that leads to death after death.

For whatever reason there are things in my life that I have to remind myself I like.  Salmon.  Simon Pegg.  I had no idea what to expect and I got all of that and more.  Part of the so-called "Three Flavors of Cornetto Trilogy" along with "Shaun of the Dead" and "The World's End".  Trying to summarize the plot would just be silly because the plot is just...silly.  Sit back, grab some popcorn and have a good time.

Movie gets uniformly good reviews but didn't manage to break into the top 100 grossing movies of the year.  These are very much the attributes of a "cult hit".

Why I Liked It - The interplay between Pegg and Frost.  The uber serious big city cop and the fawning, hero worshipping village copper.  The movie takes on the utterly ridiculous with an even, serious tone that makes everything that much funnier.

Why You Will Like It: Pegg and Frost are great but the rest of the cast is marvelous as well.  Timothy Dalton does a nice turn as the bad guy, Martin Freeman as one of the big city cops that sends Pegg's character into exile, all the various villagers.  You'll like it because it is fun.

Rated R for violent content including some graphic images and language

Rating - **** Recommended

Monday, July 20, 2015

Movie - What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) - A former child movie star takes out her anger and self hatred on her sister who is trapped in a wheelchair.

Hard to imagine a story concept less appealing than this.  Bette Davis and Joan Crawford bring their personal, real life loathing for one another to the screen.  What the audience gets is a brilliant, seething, flame war of a movie.  It would be perfectly paired with the equally brilliant "Sunset Boulevard", which examines the acid effects of stardom from a different angle.  You think you had sibling rivalry in your family?  You ain't seen sibling rivalry.  What happened one night years ago haunts both of the sisters.  In the original promotional pieces audiences were asked to keep the ending a secret from folks who hadn't seen it yet.  It all still plays beautifully fifty plus years later.

Why I Liked It - I will confess to not being a huge fan of either Davis or Crawford going into the movie.  Yet at the decline of their careers each found roles that will be remembered forever.  Every time you think that Davis's "Baby Jane" can't be any more vicious, can't sink any lower she shows you something new.  That she was willing to let the movie make her ever more hideous looking speaks to Davis's dedication to the role.  Crawford meanwhile plays a softer, more vulnerable character than I normally associate with her career.  The sibling relationship is a train wreck of monstrous proportions but one from which you will not be able to look away.

Why You Will Like It: Two great actresses at the height of their talents.  The combustion that takes place on the screen will consume their world.

Pre-rating system movie.  Intense, not for children.

Rating - ***** Highly Recommend

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Books - Cult Sci-Fi Movies And Some Wore Blue, Some Wore Gray

Still tyring to get caught up on books, so doubles for another week.

Cult Sci-Fi Movies by Danny Peary (2014) - Ten essays on some of the best science fiction movies of all time.  This book is one of a series of books on cult films (Horror, Crime, Midnight Movies).  Here
he takes on an interesting list including Barbarella, Blade Runner, Forbidden Planet and 2001 plus some lesser known ones like Liquid Sky and Zardoz.  The author's love of the movies shines through in each essay.  I had to wonder what I was getting into when I saw that "Barbarella" was the opening essay.  While Peary acknowledges the punch-line legacy of the movie, he also notes that there's more there than meets the eye.  He dives deep into who Jane Fonda was, how the character fits into the larger landscape of her career and her relationship with her then husband and "Barbarella" director, Roger Vadim.  The result is a review that is probably deeper than the movie is but it's also a sign of the kind of thoughtful work that is to follow.

What you get with each essay is solid look at the background of each film - where the idea came from, who were the creative team members that created it behind the scenes and on camera, then a detailed synopsis, his review and a list of movies you might also enjoy.  This last piece is another gem of the book.  He doesn't just go for the easy ones, most lists are at least five movies.  For "Barbarella" he suggests (among others) both "The Fifth Element" and "Tank Girl".

Reading another critics reviews of movies is an invitation to get full of yourself and feel the need to nitpick.  I didn't always agree with every point but there's no doubt that Peary does a careful and well crafted job on each of these pieces.  If you love Sci-Fi movies I would certainly point you toward this book.  Great conversation starters for you and your friends.

Peary is a veteran film critic and sportswriter.
The book is available through Workman Publishing Company.

Rated - **** Recommended

Some Wore Blue, Some Wore Gray by Heather Graham (2013) - A series of short biographies of some of the most famous and lesser lights of the Civil War.  Written by veteran romance author
Heather Graham, this was a personal project that she published on her own out of her love for history and the Civil War period.   The Lincoln's (both President and Mrs.), the Grants, the Lees and Davises are all included.  But so is Clara Barton, George Armstrong Custer, Belle Boyd and Rose Greenhow.  Each chapter approaches the subject as a real person and not as an historic icon which is always refreshing when dealing with some of these figures.

The writing has a very casual feeling to it, perhaps appropriate for the personal project nature of the book.  It reads much less like a history tome and more like a conversation with an interesting fan of the subject.  This also makes the book a very quick read.  At only 79 pages it wasn't going to be a long read under any circumstances.

For the serious history fan these are pretty lightweight stuff.  It is nice to see the lesser known faces get a moment in the spotlight.  It would be a fine starting point for someone looking to increase their familiarity with the time period and some of the important names of that time.

The book is self published by Heather Graham on Smashwords

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Monday, July 13, 2015

Movies - Flight time reviews

Had the opportunity to do some trans-Atlantic flying, which is always a good time to catch up on recent movies I've missed.  I saw three on this trip.

Kingsman - The Secret Service (2014) - Her Majesty's most secret service is looking to fill a vacancy in their elite force just as a new international threat arises.

Yes, a Bond tribute
Sigh.  This one disappointed me the most.  Mainly because it begins so well.  It wants to play along the seam between serious spy flicks (the Bourne movies) and spy parodies (Matt Helm).  It sticks more to the fun and laughs side, which is fine because it does it so very well.  In the end (if you've seen the movie you know what a terrible play on words that is) it falls into a juvenile  fascination with stylized violence and finishes in the worst possible way.  Samuel L. Jackson playing the bad guy is simply painful to watch.  The character may work on the graphic novel page but it fails miserably on the screen.  The closing scene is an utter disappointment that should have been rejected and sent back to be re-written.  A wickedly, wonderful first half gradually deteriorates into that wretched, wretched ending.

Why I Liked It - Colin Firth, as the Kingsman known as Galahad (yes, the code names are all Knights of the Round Table) is worth the price of admission all by himself.  On the surface the perfect old school English gentleman.  Refined, educated, well spoken.  You don't want to get on his bad side however, because he will kick your butt.  Combined with Taron Eggerton as "Eggsy" the street wise young man that Galahad nominates for the Kingsman the movie is a lot of fun.

Why You'll Like It: Some fun action, especially early on, a quirky concept that touches all the right bases, a story line that will carry you along until faltering in the final half hour.  Watch for Mark Hamill (I kept looking at the character and thinking "Why does he look familiar?").  It's a really fun riff on spy movies.

Rated R

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) - A washed up actor, whose greatest claim to fame were superhero movies early in his career, tries to re-ignite his star with a Broadway play.  He is gambling everything on recovering his family, his life, his career and perhaps his sanity.

Keaton takes us into an intensely personal venture for the lead character.  This is the last thread that is holding him together and it just might save him.  To keep his grip he will have to learn to let his ego be overshadowed by various people around him.  A stunning performance.  Almost two weeks after I watched it I still don't know what to make of the final five minutes.  Director  leaves you wondering.  Given the brilliance of the rest I'm willing to go along with the ending.  It's sure to cause many discussions.  One of the best movies I've seen this year.

Why I Liked It - Michael Keaton, Michael Keaton, Michael Keaton.  Which is a good thing since he is on screen almost constantly.  Keaton climbed out on a professional limb here.  It is a role unlike any other he's tried.  He also had to know that the instant reaction for a large portion of the audience was going to be that he was playing a riff on his own career.  For the younger generation the only thing they associate him with is Batman.  (If that's you check out Beetlejuice, Johnny Dangerously, heck he's even done Shakespeare in Kenneth Brannagh's "Much Ado About Nothing".)  In reality, his career has a couple bright spots and a bunch of middling offerings.  This one should go on the plus side.  I love when an actor takes a risk.

Why You Will Love It - Watching Keaton's character dance along the edge of madness, fighting to save everything worth having in his life, is a powerful and engaging story.  He's reached the point where his only recourse is honesty.  A bit of business that he has very little experience with so far.  Trying to find his way back to family and fame while fighting off the demon inside his head is just powerful stuff.

Rated R

Rating - ***** Highly Recommended

Ex Machina (2015) - A reclusive computer genius billionaire brings a young computer expert to his remote compound to test his latest creation.  It is a potential artificial intelligence in the form of an attractive young woman.  The question is - has true AI been achieved?  The unexpected question is - what will our relationship to that new intelligence be?

Ponderously paced, the movie takes itself far too seriously.  In the end it is an extended riff on the "robot as sexual plaything" trope that never adds much to what has gone before.  In the end it never really arrives at a point other than we will probably create a new intelligence that reflects our own duplicitous nature.

Why I Liked It - I didn't really.  There are some mildly interesting visual things going on but that's about it.  The movie takes forever to get anywhere, the two main male characters are either a creep or a zero.  While I wanted to root for Ava in the end there's just not much there till the absolute final moments.

Why You Will Like It -  You probably won't.  Once you get over looking at how they make Alicia Vikander (who plays the robot Ava) appear to be part flesh and part machine, you'll get bored by the script that goes no where.  Which actually makes the ending a relief.

Rated R

Rating - ** Not Impressed

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Return of the Departure of Olbermann

Pardon me while I restrain an "I told you so".

Keith Olbermann, the incredibly smart, acerbic commentator most recently employed (for the second time) with ESPN, has been cut loose.  Again.

This post from April of 2012.  It's the third story, so scroll down.

Love this KO look.  It was the one he put on just before he
would drop something particularly pithy.
Yep.  I told you so.  Ooops, lost control.

I will miss his most recent show.  I didn't always agree with him.  There were times, as always with KO, that I felt he'd gone too far, beyond over the top to crazy outerspaceville.  But that's part of the package with Keith Olbermann.  He says what he thinks, seemingly without censor.  It is what has always gotten him in trouble before.

Well, that and being an obnoxious jerk according to reports.

So color me a trifle wistful for the loss of the show but utterly unsurprised.  While the "Sports Leader" is denying any connection there are rumors that the "No Fun League" has been irked by KO's unbridled criticism of the league commissioner.  Not without reason but the NFL is unaccustomed to being criticized.  They are the 900 pound gorilla in the sports world and do not wish to be bothered by fleas.  ESPN is in bed big time with the massive monkey, so the idea that the league's ire played no part in the decision not to sign another contract is just foolish.

Keith seems to like biting the hand that feeds him.  At the same time there always seems to be another hand waiting for him.  Maybe he'll bounce back.  Again.

Or maybe in his mid-50's the bad boy routine is wearing thin.  Bombast seems to be on the way out.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Movie Review - F.W. Murnau's Sunrise

F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927) - The story of a country farmer who is beguiled by seductress from the city.  The Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston) wants The Man (George O'Brien) to sell his farm and drown his wife, The Woman (Janet Gaynor).  He will have to struggle to find what his heart truly desires.

Murnau is a German Expressionist film director best known for the Dracula inspired film "Nosferatu".  Curiously both that film and this one had copyright issues (the former with the Bram Stoker estate and the latter with a previous film called "Sunrise").  The movie won an Oscar at the inaugural Academy Awards (1929) and was one of the first movies with the music and sound effects included on the recorded soundtrack, using the Fox Movietone sound on film system.  It's just one of the innovations that were used here.  Unlike many silent films this one makes very limited use of dialogue or narration titles.  The story is told almost entirely visually.  Murnau's Expressionist background shines through in the visuals.  There is a fairy story quality to the world where The Man and The Woman live.  (Yes, those are the only names they are given.  There's no reference to name in the movie itself, only in the credits)

Why I Like It: I always catch myself, when I'm watching movies from this era, being surprised at the stunning detail in the pictures.  We tend to think of "high definition" being a modern creation.  But the silent movie often displays a stunning clarity and depth of field.  It is the visual artistry of the movie that sucked me in.

Why You Will Like It: DEspite the age and predictability of the story there's something very compelling about what is happening before your eyes.  As always there are certain allowances you have to make for the differing acting style of the age and the expressionistic sets may take a moment to settle in for you.  What happens on the screen is a fascinating look at a classic story.

Pre-rating system movie.

Rating - **** Recommended

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Books - Treasure Island and The Invisible Man

I've had lots of time to read recently and I find myself with a backlog.  So I'm going to double up for a couple weeks to keep these a little more timely.

I'm not sure I understand the why of this but my e-reader (a Nook Color) has me reading many more of the classics that I had somehow avoided/missed over the years.  Generally I have been very pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoy them and occasionally surprised at how much some of them just fall flat for me.

Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson (1883) - An aged seaman comes to the Admiral Ben Bow Inn one day.  What follows him is adventure, piracy, treasure, betrayal and death.   Young Jim Hawkins will play a central role in much of this as he carefully steers his way among the intrigues of the adults around him, in search of buried treasure.

Pretty much every cliche you know about pirates began with this novel.  Peg legs, treasure maps where "X marks the spot", pirates with parrots on their shoulder, the Black Spot and more.  When I was growing up we had an album version of the Disney 1950 film version.  It was a compressed version of the dialogue with the original actors doing the lines.  When I think of "Treasure Island" that's the first thing that comes to mind.

Why I Liked It - From the very beginning this was a boy's adventure story.  110+ years later it still works as exactly that.  Stevenson is a superb story teller and the action sails along (sorry, couldn't resist) smoothly.  You get enough of the background story without it ever interrupting the tale being told.

Why You'll Like It - The characters.  Oh, the characters!  Long John Silver is worth the price of admission all by himself.  Silver isn't a cardboard cutout villain either.  Stevenson creates a character with depth and nuance.  While Silver is a dangerous and volatile man (the only man that Captain Flint ever feared), he has an honest affection for Hawkins.  It makes the book that much better that the author invests the time to create real people in his characters.  Add in the foolishness of Squire Trelawney, the wisdom of Dr. Livesey, the honesty and intelligence of Jim Hawkins plus so many, many more finely drawn supporting characters and this is a book you won't want to put down.

Rating - **** Highest Recommendation

The Invisible Man - H.G. Wells (1897) - A mysterious man, whose clothes cover him completely, arrives in a small English village looking for a place to stay where he will not be bothered.  The longer he is there the more peculiar he seems to the villagers.  Finally his secret is revealed.  Through a process he discovered he has made his body invisible.  Now the battle begins between the village and the outraged "Invisible Man" who promises a reign of terror.

I'm having an interesting time with Wells, one of the greatest of the early science fiction authors.  I truly enjoyed "War of the Worlds" but have struggled repeatedly with "The Time Machine".  So I wasn't sure about this classic.

Why I Liked It - The story telling is wonderful and drew me right in.  At the same time I kept seeing huge plot holes in it.  Why does Griffin (the invisible man) make some invisible clothing when he had the chance?  He moves precipitously at the beginning of his adventure and pays the price for it along the way.  Why does no one think to use flour bombs against him when they have the chance?  They simply accept that they can't see him and never think about how to solve that problem.  Made me a little crazy as I read it.  Other than that I really enjoyed it.  The book kept reminding me of Steven's Jekyll and Hyde story.  A scientist moves into areas never before explored and suffers greatly from the experience.

Why You'll Like It - Wells creates some wonderful characters in Griffin, Tom Marvel the tramp and Dr.Kemp, who Griffin knew from university and turns to for help.  Mixed in with the various personalities of the villagers and others Griffin meets along the way you will enjoy the story a lot.

Rating - **** Recommended

Monday, June 29, 2015

Movie - Edtv

Edtv (1999) - A video store clerk (Matthew McConaughey) agrees to let his life be broadcast live on cable TV.  Unedited and unscripted.  Quickly his entire family and the woman he loves will begin to feel the burden of the lack privacy when thier lives become "reality TV".  In the end he will have to decide what's most important in his life.

The instant you bring up this movie the comparisons with Jim Carrey's "The Truman Show" will begin.  The two movies share a common concept, a man's life broadcast as entertainment, but they take two very different approaches to the topic.  If you let yourself get caught into the "either/or" argument here you will miss out.  "The Truman Show" got there first (1998), was a huge financial success and picked up a fair number of awards and nominations.  Add in the devoted fandom of Jim Carrey's and the usual "winner" in the discussion is "The Truman Show".

But "Edtv" has steadily grown a following in the years after it's underwhelming first run.  While Carrey's story has an almost otherworldly feel to it, this one is much the grittier and, well, more "real life".  "The Truman Show" may offer more high flown concepts about the intrusion of media, existentialism and theology but "Edtv" forces us to look a little more closely at ourselves as consumers of this kind of programming. When transform real people into our entertainment we need to be aware of the impact it will have on their lives.  They don't stop being human beings.  The movie gives a fairly unblinking look at the effect of making real life simply entertainment for the masses can have.

Both these movies come at the very beginning of the "reality TV" boom.  While the quality of "The Truman Show" remains steady, I think the years have shown just how in tune with what was to come "Edtv" really was.

Why I Like The Movie : I like the grittier approach to the subject here.  "The Truman Show" (which is a great movie), makes the whole thing too antiseptic and remote.  You can shake your head about the poor behavior of "those people".  This movie is much more about US and our bad behavior.  Our glorification of fame and idealization of "television stardom" are behaviors that we could certainly stand to reduce.  At the same time, the movie brings the message with plenty of laughs and character depth.

Why You'll Like The Movie: Start with a great, "spot the stars" cast (Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, Ellen DeGeneres, Sally Kirkland, Martin Landau, Rob Reiner, Dennis Hopper, Elizabeth Hurley, Clint Howard and a slew of familiar supporting actors).  Add in Ron Howard's deft directorial touch and a solid, if slightly predictable, script.  Just like the TV show version, "Edtv" is going to give you a little of everything - comedy, romance, drama, sex and death.  You will have fun along the way.

It may also make you just a little uncomfortable about your viewing habits.  Almost 20 years later reality TV is woven even deeper into our media culture.  And it hasn't gotten any better along the way.

Rating - ****Recommended